Monday, July 23, 2012

A Psychological Profile of James Holmes: The Joker Killer

In watching and reading the media coverage of The Batman movie killings in Aurora, Colorado, it is frequently stated that the killer’s behaviors are incomprehensible, not understandable, beyond belief, etc. Taken figuratively, I understand what these people are saying since there a very few people who would walk into a crowded movie theater, throw down chemical bombs, shoot and kill 12 people from ages 6 to 51, and wound 58 others. Taken literally, however, I disagree, because there are reasons why people behave the way that they do and those reasons are indeed discoverable.

The first thing I noticed about the alleged killer, James Holmes, that I have not seen anyone discuss yet, is that the school picture of him looks quite awkward. While clean-cut and properly dressed, what stands out from the picture is a vacant stare. Try staring at the picture and making a connection with it. You can’t. The smile also seems forced. In a video of him when he was age 18, note how when he speaks to the audience in front of him, he mostly looks at the presentation screen or at the floor, and when he does look in the audience’s direction, his eyes go out to right, preventing him from properly connecting with them.  He also never seems to directly turn and face the crowd in the clips shown.

The vacant stare, forced smile, and difficulty emotionally connecting with others is consistent with the repeated theme that has emerged in media reports from people who knew him (or knew of him) which is that he was shy, introverted, aloof, socially inept, stubborn, quiet, that he stayed to himself, and was easily forgotten.  This information, combined with other information below, makes me wonder if he has Asperger's syndrome, a condition manifested by qualitative impairment in social interaction and restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests and activities.

It seems that Holmes was teased, probably related to his social awkwardness, and that he did not know how to handle it and held his emotions in.  For example, a H.S. classmate said, "He was the kind of person that if you teased him, he would sit there and smile and really not do anything about it."

Many have remarked about his lack of on-line presence, at least under his real name. He apparently does not have a Facebook or Twitter account. Although he had a MySpace page, he either never had any friends or the friends were deleted due to an inactive account. Note how in his MySpace picture that both eyes are closed, apparently at a restaurant,which seems strange. He appears to have had more recent account with the website, Adult Friend Finders, and another profile with This indicates, given the other information that has come out about him, that he was having trouble finding a sexual partner using normal behavioral methods (e.g., introducing himself to someone, dating, etc) and was trying to bypass that by going directly to an exclusive sex dating site and swinger service. By this time, he had dyed his hair orange and was asking “Would you visit me in prison?” In a picture of him on he again seems awkward, with a strange smirk, one eye almost closed, and his head tilted to side. Maybe the sun was shining in his eyes, but all of the pictures seem odd for one reason or another.
Despite stellar grades, Holmes was unable to find a job. One wonders if it was due to his social awkwardness and extreme rigidity and stubbornness that caused him to perform terribly during a computer  programming summer internship. He had been giving off social cues, at least recently, that there was something seriously wrong with him. For example, it was recently discovered that he had a “bizarre, guttural, freakish” sounding answering machine message. It seem like he was struggling to fit into society and recently decided to withdraw from his PhD program. He was trying to pay for college by working part-time at McDonald’s, which obviously is not going to work. Some say he seemed depressed. He would not acknowledge people in his apartment complex who said hello. At some point,  it appears that he had enough. People who decided to shoot members of the public at random can get to that point by being convinced that the world (or a particular society) is the enemy and needs to experience retribution. To someone who thinks this way, there are no more individuals. Each person is simply viewed as a reflection of the society as a whole that the person despises.

In the case of James Holmes, such feelings may have been brewing for some time. It has been said that he always rooted for the bad guys to win and loved to play fantasy role playing computer games.  While there is nothing wrong with that, it seems that Holmes eventually had difficulty detatching fantasy from reality and eventually over-identified with the Joker character, most like Heath Ledger’s award winning version.  The Joker is known to take his anger out against the world through violent means, which sometimes involves using explosive devices and guns in public places. This may account for the dyed hair (although it is strange he did not dye it green) and would account for why he committed this crime during a Batman movie, identified himself as The Joker when police arrived, and is reportedly still carrying out the role in prison.

Note: The comments above are based on early media stories, are preliminary, and partly speculative. Also, I have never evaluated Mr. Holmes.

Related Stories: Cannibal Icepick Killer Luka Magnotta was Not Born Evil
                         A Psychological Profile of Chardon School Shooter, TJ Lane
                         A Psychological Profile of Wade Michael Page: The Sikh Shooter 


  1. We ought to think about ways to strengthen gun laws to reduce the odds of such tragedies occurring. But I wonder if we ought to give even greater attention to ways of preemption that involve psychological profiling.
    Think of American air security as compared with El Al air security. The former is often focused on the last attack. If terrorists use box cutters, then we start checking for blades. If they put a bomb in their shoes, then we start checking shoes. We focus on the means, even if it means frisking a decrepit grandma, rather than looking for psychological signs that suggest risk. On the other hand, El Al focuses proportionately more on the person than on the means used by the person.
    In this case, it seems like there were signs all over the place and in diverse venues: in school, at his job, in his apartment building, and online. If there was some common place that people could have reported the behavioral oddities maybe experts would have seen a pattern and investigated. It seems like the FBI uses a similar approach when it follows up on leads about people who act suspiciously like terrorists. And this has saved many lives.
    The problem, I suppose, is how do you set up such a system without violating people’s legal rights, civil rights, and right to privacy? But without such a system don’t we violate the rights of 300 million Americans to live without terror? It seems like tradeoffs need to be made.

  2. As soon as I heard that he was PhD student, I wondered if he had Asperger's. After the weekend news and seeing him in court today, I've no doubt of it. I have a child with Asperger's. I see the behavior every day.

  3. Saying that guns kill people is like saying spoons make people fat. Should we push for "spoon control" to fight obesity?

  4. Greetings, I am a student who is researching this for a paper. After some exhaustive searching of the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual his condition, to me, doesn't sound like typical Aspergers. Isn't it more likely that he had Schizoid Personality Disorder and became delusional? I would like to hear an opinion on this because I am still in the process of learning! Thanks!

  5. Good question, Morgan, but I tend to doubt it. Holmes did desire close relationships and sexual experiences as evidenced by his search for a mate on an online dating site. He seemed to be involved in his own set of pleasurable activities, even if they involved fantasy life. He did have some friends per media reports. Closes thing to schizoid is his emotional coldness and detachment.

  6. Thanks for the response. I was mainly basing my thoughts on various things I have read, however there is still little information out there. I wonder if they'll ever come out with a diagnosis.

  7. Some info may come out during the trial on a diagnosis.


Your comments are welcome.